‘Israel doesn’t care about its int’l image’
Mideast expert Khatchik Derghougassian argues global outrage has ‘no political relevance’
Even as Israel withdrew most of its troops from the Gaza Strip yesterday, a new attack against a Gaza school that left at least 10 dead sparked a new wave of international condemnation that included Washington and the United Nations.
The number of Palestinian victims has reportedly topped 1,800 — but global outrage seems to be doing nothing to push for a long-lasting ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants Hamas.
“International pressure is too symbolic and discursive to have any real impact,” Middle East and International Security expert Khatchik Derghougassian told the Herald. “The current (Israeli) government — or any government in the last 10 to 15 years — is not too worried about moral damage to its image.”
Worldwide empathy toward Palestinians, says Universidad de San Andrés professor Derghougassian, “is short-lasting and has no political relevance."
Is a long-lasting truce between Israel and Hamas anywhere in sight?
With Hamas systematically rejecting proposals for a ceasefire and (Israeli PM Benjamin) Netanyahu calling for Israelis to prepare for a long war, there doesn’t seem to be any predisposition for a long-lasting truce. The main reason is that the two sides of the conflict have set maximalist goals: the de-militarization of Gaza is the condition set by Israel, while the release of prisoners and the lifting of the blockade is Hamas’ demand. Hamas is not willing to accept de-militarization and Israel is not willing to lift the blockade. In these conditions, logic resembles that of a “game of chicken.” A ceasefire will eventually be achieved but the question is how long it will last.
What countries or organizations would you say are in a position to successfully mediate in the negotiations?
Because of its geopolitical position, Egypt is key to any short-term solution — meaning a relatively permanent truce. With the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip, the Egyptian border is the only exit door for Gaza.
Former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi had a key role in the negotiations that led to the 2012 truce. But is the El-Sisi administration willing to overcome the differences it has with Hamas?
It is possible that Sisi’s government will end up accepting the role that most of the interested parties are requiring of him, but it won’t happen until Hamas understands or accepts its “dependency” on Egypt. But the Egyptian military might also want to send Islamists, and more precisely (Morsi’s) Muslim Brothers, a message of its intransigence.
On an international level, public opinion seems to be shifting toward Palestinians. How much does international pressure affect the policies of the state of Israel?
In the short term, international pressure has little impact. It is too symbolic and discursive to have any immediate impact. In this sense, it is not even pressure like, for example, sanctions on a given country can be. I also don’t think that the current (Israeli) government — or any of its governments in the last 10 to 15 years — is too worried about the moral damage to Israel’s image.
But Palestinians have improved their international standing...
It is true that Palestinian global mobilization has become more efficient. But they are still lacking the most important thing: an internal consensus around a flexible and long-term strategy to eventually achieve the creation of a Palestinian state.
It is not a coincidence that Netanyahu’s government perceives Palestinian unity as the biggest threat to Israel’s national interest — or at least to what the members of the coalition define as Israel’s interests. During the four offensives against Gaza that took place during the last decade, the disproportion in the number of victims is a fact and it can be expected that Palestinians touch international opinion more. However, this empathy is short-lasting, it has no political relevance without a Palestinian strategy.
Israel’s argument that Hamas refuses to recognize the state of Israel also resounds internationally.
In what position has this last conflict left Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas?
Abbas is probably the biggest victim, both of Israel and of Hamas. If Hamas was hoping that the conflict would lead to a Palestinian uprising in the West Bank, a third intifada, well it didn’t happen fundamentally because Abbas didn’t agree, probably considering that costs would be greater than benefits. At the end of the day, Palestinians didn’t gain from the second intifada — on the contrary, the internal division between Gaza and the West Bank, or Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), is in part the consequence of the second intifada’s failure. Moreover, Hamas and Abbas’ strategic visions are clearly different, with Hamas opting for resistance and armed confrontation and Abbas going for a diplomatic initiative that attempts to save the Palestinian state from the trap of negotiations, which seem to be more intended to delay this goal than to achieve it. In this sense, to an Israeli government that is not particularly sympathetic to a Palestinian state, Abbas can be a lot more dangerous than Hamas.
Israeli public opinion seems to massively support the right, despite the fact that repeated offensives in Gaza have failed to reduce the “threat” of Hamas. What role does the left play in Israel?
The shift to the right in Israeli politics is evident. The left disappeared in 2001, when Ehud Barak lost the elections. The most immediate consequence of this shift to the right is the end of the consensus between the centre-right and the centre-left regarding land for peace and the two-state solution. It is true that, since the 1970s, small rightist parties have made their weight felt, but nowadays they impose on the centre-right and stop any attempt at moderation or consensus.
How can this be explained?
There is no simple explanation to this phenomenon... I do suspect that the Jewish migration from the former USSR in the 1990s and their children who were born and bred in Israel explain in part this shift to the right. We shouldn’t expect much sympathy for the left from this generation — on the contrary, they are at the vanguard of settlement expansion and rejection of any perspective of a Palestinian state. The failure of the peace process, regardless of which of the two sides is to blame, is another reason. And finally suicide attacks against synagogues and public places between 2001 and 2004 also had a negative impact on the credibility of long-lasting peace too.
Israel has tried to justify the bombing of hospitals and schools in Gaza by saying Hamas hides weapons in these buildings and uses civilians as human shields. Some have even said that Hamas is interested in seeing a rise in the number of civilian victims. What do you think?
This Israeli argument, aimed at justifying the disproportion of its reaction, needs to be contextualized. It is true that the UN has denounced that Hamas uses some schools as repositries for its weapons, but to think that Hamas’ leaders would be as cynical as to bet on their own people’s misery is simply to dehumanize them. And the dehumanization leads to disproportion in the answer. It’s absurd to think that anyone would want to suffer death and destruction to obtain political benefits. And it’s even more absurd to think that the inhabitants of Gaza allow Hamas to use them as “human shields” and continue to support it.
Is Israel any closer to lifting the blockade on Gaza?
The blockade on Gaza is responsible for a good part of the misery in Gaza but I don’t think Israel is willing to lift it for security reasons which — regardless of whether they are justified or trying to hide other goals — do have some credibility. (The argument is that) if under a blockade Hamas could store all these rockets, you can imagine what they would do without one. Of course, this argument leads to a vicious circle because, to Hamas, the blockade justifies the resistance.
How interested is the US in putting an end to the conflict?
The governments of George Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have worked toward a solution. For the Obama administration, which has been constantly attacked by Republicans for “abandoning” the Middle East by withdrawing from Iraq, it was important to take the initiative (of peace talks).
The problem is that even if the political will to put an end to the conflict exists, the mediation and the progress in negotiations is going to be affected by two factors: the dynamics of electoral politics in the US and the fact that the Middle East remains strategically relevant. The support of the US is essential to Israel but Israel has understood all too well how relevant these two factors are to allow for the support to continue.